Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017 Whitney Biennial

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, 2017. Photo: Susan Yung
The 2017 Whitney Biennial is the first edition to be held in the new building, which itself still feels more like news than the show itself. The museum's 2015 inaugural aspirational statement show on Gansevoort (America Is Hard to See) felt like a biennial, and probably helped to alleviate some of the pressure that builds up before each biennial. Mia Locks and Christopher Lew curated this edition, whose work was chosen prior to the 2016 election.

Biennials, by nature, are notoriously overstuffed. The most memorable works are often distinguished, for me, by scale or craft. The standouts in this show are the site-specific installations that make use of the vast window walls facing the Hudson River. Foremost among them are Samara Golden's Escheresque work, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, comprising scale models of the offices or residences of several occupants of a multi-story building. Tenants include a treatment room (of an unspecified medical, dental or vanity service), a restaurant, an office, and more, all with breathtaking river views. By using mirrored panels and securing some of the units upside-down, the effect evokes that of an infinity mirror. It's both realistic and completely disorienting. (Curator Locks is publishing a book on Golden's work this spring.)

Raύl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016. Photo: Susan Yung

Another work that takes cunning advantage of the glass and sunlight is beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end by Raύl de Nieves. Using mundane media, de Nieves has crafted an impressive faux stained glass composition on the windows, which backgrounds beaded, knobby, vaguely monstrous sculptures and costumes, some of which de Nieves wears in performances. It's not exactly water into wine, but he does create the feeling of ecclesiastical opulence with simple materials. It occupies the lounge area behind the partial wall that provides shade to the galleries, where people check their phones while resting on the tasteful leather sofas.

Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel, Reflections, 2017
In a similar vein, in Reflections, Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel adhered reverse cut-out vinyl text that appears in negative form on the adjacent wall. The text summons verbiage from the 1968 student strikes in Paris, which aimed to destabilize the university system.

In Root sequence. Mother tongue, Asad Raza arrayed 26 individually potted saplings in one of the galleries that leads to an outdoor exhibition space. The trees have been assigned personalities, scents, and/or traits. This indoor grove is clearly conducive to socializing, with groups of chatters standing amidst the installation as if the trees were guests at a cocktail party. 

Occupy Museums is an installation organizing the debts of 30 artists, with artifacts somewhat hokily embedded within the sheetrock walls of the galleries. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement from which it derives its name, it is meant to underscore economic disparity—in this case between debt-laden artists and the lending institutions which profit from the debt.  
Occupy Museums, Stress, Fear and Anxiety Bundle, 2015.
One of the oldest painters represented is Jo Baer (born 1929), whose unstretched, sparingly-marked canvases with a harmonious organic palette are a breath of fresh air. Other art world veterans include Lyle Ashton Harris, with an atmospheric video room installation, and Jon Kessler, who combines machinery and detritus into densely-packed sculptures. Of representational art and photography, the subject matter is predominantly, refreshingly, non-Caucasian. There are full rooms devoted to one artist's work; some puzzling, such as the grotesque, charred pastiches of KAYA; others check the pulse of painting, including Carrie Moyer Ulrike Müller, and Shara Hughes.

The fact that the work was made in a pre-Trump presidency time gives it an almost nostalgic feel, free from the overbearing story line that will most likely dominate work made in 2017 and after—the way 9/11 affected everything that came after. And there's no getting around the tension between the prominence of the disenfranchised in the subject matter and the expensive river views and surrounding glitz. Tis ever thus.

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